TranslationThe Bible in the Language of Jesus The Syriac Peshitta is an early Bible translation that is key to textual criticism and offers insights into the teaching of Jesus. Philip M. FornessJesus raises Jairus’s daughter in Luke 8 in a 13th c. Peshitta manuscript. Vat. sir. 559 (f. 73v)October 3, 2023 ShareFacebookTwitterLinkedInPrint Level It may not be as obvious to modern readers, but the earliest Christian communities attached significance to the actual words spoken by Jesus in the Aramaic dialect of first-century Palestine. The Gospels do this several times, drawing attention to the original language used by Jesus and his disciples. Here we can think of Jesus’s quotation of Psalm 22:1 on the cross “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?,” translated as “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46; cf. Mark 15:34). Mark also records Jesus’ Aramaic words while he raises a girl from the dead: “Talitha cumi” (Mark 5:41), and John specifies that Jesus gave Simon the name Cephas “which,” he notes, “means Peter” (John 1:42). All these show interest on the part of the evangelists in the actual Aramaic words of Jesus. But what is Aramaic and what is the history of the Bible in Aramaic? Syriac translations of the Bible The Aramaic language has been in use for over 3,000 years and remains a living language today. Many varieties or dialects of Aramaic existed in Jesus’ day, and Christian communities used Bible translations in two different Aramaic dialects in antiquity: Christian Palestinian Aramaic and Syriac. The Aramaic dialect known as Syriac developed in the region around the city of Edessa which is located in modern-day southeastern Turkey. The Bible was translated several times into Syriac. News about the Old Syriac Gospels translation circulated widely in popular media in early 2023, reporting on fragments of a fourth manuscript containing this version that are identified in two articles from 2022 and 2023. But the most commonly used Syriac Bible translation is known as the Peshitta, meaning the “simple” or “straightforward” version. A new English translation of the Peshitta is nearly complete, and another English translation project is just getting underway. This Bible translation remains in use today in Christian communities of the Syriac heritage. The opening of Matthew in the Old Syriac. BL Add MS 14451, f. 1v (5th c.) Produced in the second century AD, the Peshitta Old Testament forms one of the earliest monuments of Syriac literature. Since it was translated directly from the Hebrew and exhibits knowledge of some Jewish interpretive traditions, scholars used to make the argument that the translation was produced by a community of Jewish converts to Christianity from the city of Edessa. This argument has been called into question, and the current opinion is that the translation was produced by a Jewish community and subsequently used by Christians who also knew Syriac.1Simcha Gross, “A Long Overdue Farewell: The Purported Jewish Origins of Syriac Christianity,” in Jews and Syriac Christians: Intersections across the First Millennium, ed. Aaron Michael Butts and Simcha Gross, Texts and Studies in Ancient Judaism 180 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2020), 131–33. The Peshitta New Testament emerged around the year 400 and forms a revision of the Old Syriac Gospels. Interestingly, five of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament are not included: 2 Peter, 2–3 John, Jude, and Revelation. Syriac translations of these books only appeared in the sixth or seventh centuries. The Peshitta also omits the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 7:53–8:11, suggesting that the passage must have been absent in the Greek manuscripts available to the translators. A translation in the language of Jesus When reading the Peshitta, one is immediately struck by the fact that this work was written in a dialect of the language used by Jesus. So, what do they do when the Greek source presents Jesus’ Aramaic words noted above? Peshitta Matthew, for example, does not translate Jesus’ Aramaic words on the cross. Peshitta Mark includes the same words of Jesus found in Matthew and then offers a translation that corresponds to the Peshitta version of Psalm 22:1. Further, Mark 5:41 offers no explanation of Jesus’ Aramaic words to the girl in Mark 5:41, and Peter is simply known as Cephas (Kepha in Syriac) throughout the Gospels without any attempt to represent the Greek petros. Even more fascinating are the instances where the Peshitta seems to give insight into the original Aramaic spoken by Jesus. Jeff Childers suggests that the Peshitta may reveal a pun in Jesus’ language in John 8:34. Jesus states in Childers’s translation: “Everyone who commits sin is a slave of sin.” The Syriac words for “commits” (ʿabed) and “slave” (ʿabda) share the same three-letter root in Syriac. One can imagine how this phrase would have stuck in the ears of Jesus’s audience. Childers identifies another possible wordplay in Luke 12:7. Jesus says to the disciples in Childers’s translation: “But as for you, even the separate hairs of your head are all numbered.” In Syriac, “hairs” (mene) and “numbered” (manyan) share many of the same consonants, suggesting that the original phrase in Aramaic may well have featured alliteration. Translation choices and interpretive traditions Quite beyond the recovery of Jesus’ words in Aramaic, the Peshitta led to distinctive interpretive traditions. In Genesis 2:2, God is stated to have finished the work of creation not on the “seventh day” as in the Hebrew Bible, but on the “sixth day.” Craig Morrison points out that the translators of the Septuagint—the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible—made the same decision. The reason for this translation choice seems to be its theological or practical significance. God was completely finished with the work of creation by the sixth day. There should be no confusion that the seventh day, the Sabbath, was entirely reserved for rest. The Peshitta’s rendering of Genesis 2:2 had an effect on the Syriac tradition of biblical interpretation. Several early Christian authors wrote works on the six days of creation. The fourth-century Greek author Basil of Caesarea’s sermons on the six days became very popular and were translated into Syriac in the fifth century. The extensive homily on creation by the sixth-century Syriac poet and preacher Jacob of Serugh covers 151 pages in its modern edition. Jacob treats all seven days, dedicating over twenty pages to God’s rest on the seventh day. The focus on God’s rest does not feature so prominently in any other work on the six days of creation in antiquity. Here the Peshitta translation of this passage may have inspired Jacob. The Peshitta also offers a window into how early Christians wrestled with theological terminology, as with Paul’s theology of justification. The Hebrew word ṣedeq, often translated into English “justice” or “righteousness,” was translated in the Septuagint as dikaiosune. Paul uses this term both to refer both to God’s own righteousness and to God’s act of making humanity righteous. As Daniel King and J. Edward Walters discuss, the Syriac text uses two words for the Greek term dikaiosune and related forms: zaddiquta with a semantic range from acquittal to righteousness, and kenuta meaning just or innocent. We can look to the Peshitta to see how ancient translators tried to translate important theological ideas into their language that still challenge modern translators today. We can look to the Peshitta to see how ancient translators tried to translate important theological ideas that still challenge modern translators today. Encountering the Bible through the Peshitta In addition to the text of the Peshitta, its transmission in manuscripts show different ways that Christian communities encountered and read the Bible. The books of Ruth, Susannah, Esther, and Judith circulated in the first millennium as a collection called the “Book of Women.” In a sixth-century manuscript, the early Christian writing the Acts of Thecla which focuses on a female follower of the apostle Paul appears at the end of the collection. As Catherine Burris has discussed, this collection invites readers to hear the stories of virtuous women stretching from the time of the judges through the Jewish communities in Assyria, Babylon, and Persia to the earliest Christian communities.2Catherine Burris, “The Syriac Book of Women: Text and Metatext,” in The Early Christian Book, ed. William E. Klingshirn and Linda Safran, CUA Studies in Early Christianity (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2007), 86–98. By the sixth and seventh centuries, Syriac Christianity had spread as far as China and India bringing the Peshitta with them. These Christian communities had a continuous presence in India down to the Portuguese colonial period. At a synod held in India in 1599, the Portuguese colonizers condemned the omission of five books from the New Testament used by the Syriac Christians of India. Interestingly, they also noted that the Bible used in India did not include a longer version of 1 John 5:7. This extended version reads as follows, with the additional words in italics: “For there are three that testify in heaven: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one.” In this way, the Peshitta Bible used by the Syriac Christian communities in India—rather than the Bible of the colonizers—was closer to what is now considered the earliest known version of the New Testament. Get new articles and updates in your inbox. Leave this field empty if you're human: The East Syriac tradition developed a distinct way of organizing the Bible. In addition to the Psalter, they divided the Old and New Testaments into five volumes: (1) the Book of the Pentateuch, (2) the Book of Sessions, (3) the Book of the Prophets, (4) the Book of the Maccabees, and (5) the New Testament.3Heleen Murre-van den Berg, Scribes and Scriptures: The Church of the East in the Eastern Ottoman Provinces (1500–1800), Eastern Christian Studies 21 (Leuven: Peeters, 2015), 228–29. The contents of the Pentateuch, Prophets, and New Testament are clear. But the Book of Sessions combines an interesting array of historical and poetic books: Joshua, Judges, 1–2 Samuel, 1–2 Kings, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Ruth, Song of Songs, Sirach, and Job. The Book of the Maccabees features a mixture of histories and wisdom literature: 1–3 Maccabees, 1–2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Wisdom, Judith, Esther, Susanna, Epistle of Jeremiah, Epistle of Baruch, and Baruch. How might this organization encourage different ways of encountering and reading the Bible? Conclusion The Peshitta represents a fascinating early translation of the Bible. It has proven important for textual criticism, as the Old Testament was based directly on the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament translation was carried out at an early date. As a dialect of Aramaic, the Syriac may offer insight into wordplays used by Jesus. Finally, the Peshitta has served as the Bible for Christian communities for more than 1,500 years. This translation inspired different interpretation traditions, which we can glimpse in the rich literature of the Syriac Christian communities. An earlier version of this article said the Syriac Bible used in India omitted the addition to the Lord’s prayer in Matthew 6:13, but it actually omitted the longer version of 1 John 5:7.Notes1Simcha Gross, “A Long Overdue Farewell: The Purported Jewish Origins of Syriac Christianity,” in Jews and Syriac Christians: Intersections across the First Millennium, ed. Aaron Michael Butts and Simcha Gross, Texts and Studies in Ancient Judaism 180 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2020), 131–33.2Catherine Burris, “The Syriac Book of Women: Text and Metatext,” in The Early Christian Book, ed. William E. Klingshirn and Linda Safran, CUA Studies in Early Christianity (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2007), 86–98.3Heleen Murre-van den Berg, Scribes and Scriptures: The Church of the East in the Eastern Ottoman Provinces (1500–1800), Eastern Christian Studies 21 (Leuven: Peeters, 2015), 228–29. Philip M. Forness Philip (PhD, Princeton Theological Seminary) is Associate Professor of Eastern Christianity in the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies at KU Leuven. He is the author of Preaching Christology in the Roman Near East: A Study of Jacob of Serugh and translator of 1–2 Maccabees in The Antioch Bible.